adobe trust

Why Are Young Americans Today So Much Less Trusting Than Older People Are?

Maybe it was always thus — that the older you get, the more trust you develop.

That’s the most positive spin we can put on a new Pew Research study that shows young people are massively more cynical and distrusting than their elders are. Pew’s John Gramlich writes:

Around three-quarters (73%) of U.S. adults under 30 believe people “just look out for themselves” most of the time. A similar share (71%) say most people “would try to take advantage of you if they got a chance,” and six-in-ten say most people “can’t be trusted.” Across all three of these questions, adults under 30 are significantly more likely than their older counterparts to take a pessimistic view of their fellow Americans.

How MUCH less trust do young  people have in their fellow Americans than their elders have?

[Y]oung adults are much less likely than those 65 and older to say they have confidence in the American people to do what they can to help those in need (53% vs. 80%); work together to solve community problems (52% vs. 71%); treat others with respect (48% vs. 74%); accept election results no matter who wins (44% vs. 66%); and reconsider their views after learning new information (40% vs. 61%).

The Pew folks don’t claim to know exactly why there’s such a gap, or even that it is unprecedented. And their write-up added: “Social and institutional trust patterns can be complicated, as the Center’s new report shows, and there is reason to believe that young adults’ views and behaviors might change as they get older – and as the world around them changes.”

But here we must add that growing up being told that it’s not safe to trick or treat/wait at a bus stop/walk to school without an adult because all of these could result in your DEATH at the hands of a crazed predator — well, that might have a smidge to do with declining levels of trust. As would the simple practice of always being  supervised, as if the world is too dangerous to encounter without a bodyguard.

We do believe that there is never any single cause for social issues. At the same time, we also believe in believing in people. Teaching kids that, “You better stay next to me at the store because otherwise someone will snatch you!” is not making them safer. But it could be making them distrust the world.

Peter Gray adds that high levels of distrust may be in part the result of play deprivation. “Social play is necessarily cooperative and trusting — you have to trust the other person. [It’s] an agreement: we’re going to do this, together.” When there’s a lack of play, or if the only play kids get is in a structured setting, with set teams, and an adult running the show, the kids don’t learn trust because it’s not a necessary part of the equation.

Gray illustrates the evolutionary importance of play by channeling a bonobo playdate: “I’m not going to bite you, but how do I prove that? We play and play. We go through the motions of fighting but we’re not actually going to truly bite each other. I’m trusting you not to bite me. I’m even lying on my back — my belly’s up. You could kill me right now.” Doing all that creates deep trust.

Trust is not just a nice character trait, or, worse, evidence that a person is a sap. It has to be there before we can take any kind of risk, from trying a new activity to falling in love. Without trust, the world is just a rotten place filled with rotten people looking out for #1. What a miserable outlook to carry through life.

So how can we nurture our own kids’ trust in the world? We gradually let them encounter it. They learn that strangers are just other people. Challenges are things they can handle. Help is something that it’s fun to give (that’s why parents are always giving it!). As their trust grows, our trust grows in them. It’s win/win.

The world wins, too, as our optimistic, open children go forth and connect. – L.S.